By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
Elk City, Idaho is similar to many small, rural towns in the American West where residents have mostly relied on themselves, in good times and in bad. There is one elementary school here, a gas station, café and forest service office, but no hospital, no cell phone service and limited Internet connection.
Locals often still gather at the café for their morning coffee and talk about the good old days. Conversations revolve around what the forest service is up to, where some timber was sold or where one might hunt elk or wolf.
Once a prosperous mining and lumber town—there was a gold strike here in 1861—unincorporated Elk City has fewer than 200 residents today, many of whom practice subsistence living or ranch cattle. This is a town where most people still carry guns in their cars or on their hips in case they come across a wolf threatening livestock.
With such a small population and with Elk City isolated deep within the Nez Perce National Forest an hour’s drive from the nearest town, it’s fallen upon the town’s few residents to organize a volunteer fire department and emergency medical service. And in recent years, to develop a resilient water management team; the five-member all volunteer Elk City Water and Sewer Association (ECWSA).
It has not been easy
The town’s most pressing need is to improve its wastewater treatment. The infrastructure is failing and within a decade will no longer meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s permit requirements.
Most Elk City residents live on fixed incomes and pay $75 per month for water and sewer services. The cost to construct a new system would require that rates increase to $90 per month—roughly 15 percent of residents’ $7,000 Median Household Income (MHI). In most communities, residents pay between 1 to 3 percent of their monthly incomes for water and sewer services.
“One member of the water and sewer board says that they’re now having to pay for the sins of their fathers,” says Ty Long, a rural development specialist with Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) “Most realize that they’ve kept rates so low for so long that a very abrupt rate increase, as opposed to one happening over the course of 20 years, is necessary. So everyone is coming to grips with that, realizing that they will have to pay more to have clean water and wastewater. The rate increase has to happen,” Long says, “but it doesn’t mean anyone is happy about it.”
This hard reckoning came to a head when ECWSA violated its operating permit earlier this year—the result of its geographical isolation, wastewater quality monitoring logistics and costs.
The permit violations—nearly 13 per month between mid-October 2015 and February 2016—weren’t necessarily Elk City’s fault. In February, a landslide blocked Highway 14, the only paved road into and out of town, which prevented operators from taking samples to Lewiston—a four-hour drive away—for monitoring for nearly a month. (Watch video of the landslide as it crashes down on the highway taken by Bret Edwards, Idaho Transportation Department employee. Warning: There may be some graphic language.)
Usually, they would make the all-day trip five times a month in order to meet permit requirements. Wastewater samples have a limited window for testing from the time they are collected; tests for E coli, for instance, must be run within six hours.
Even before the landslide, Elk City had limited options: pay the operator to drive the samples to the distant lab five times per month, or begin sampling and analyzing on-site, which would be very expensive. The cost for a complete analysis would be about $6,500—a substantial amount for an agency that serves a community with such a low MHI.
Following the landslide, leaving town was only possible three times per week at either 6:00 a.m. or 6:00 p.m. Travel was limited because the only available route—an old U.S. Forest Service dirt road—could not withstand traffic during the day, and the Sheriff or Forest Service employees had to accompany any vehicles.
Elk City also needed to find a way to dechlorinate its wastewater effluent to send it to a receiving stream, or move the wastewater treatment out of a flood plain. Moving the treatment facility out of the flood plain would allow for land application of wastewater effluent rather than discharge into the stream, effectively removing the requirement for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. It would then be possible to obtain a new permit through Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), allowing for less frequent sample testing.
Realizing they did not have the knowledge or skills to develop sustainable solutions, Elk City’s all-volunteer water board contacted RCAC for assistance.
For nearly a year, Long met with water board members, as well as Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) staff, and with engineering firms to explore options to bring the system back into compliance.
As a first step, RCAC secured permission from the Forest Service to travel on its road at any time, which allowed the city to deliver its samples to Lewiston for testing on time and maintain compliance with its operating permit. Next, RCAC found a lab in Maine that would loan the water board sampling equipment as a temporary fix. Soon after, from a Colorado water district, RCAC obtained the equipment necessary to perform E.coli analysis at a dramatic savings. For a total cost of $250, the Elk City water system purchased the used incubator and a broken sealer in need of a new heating element, which when repaired, resulted in a savings of $5,500. In all, RCAC helped the community reduce testing costs from $6,500 to roughly $750.
With the equipment in place, RCAC provided training on the new system and the community is now running their wastewater sampling analysis on-site.
In March and April, the ECWSA had only one violation. ECWSA and federal and state officials are now considering alternatives to replace Elk City’s current treatment and collection lines.
“Ultimately, the residents understand what’s at stake,” Long says. “My job has been to hold them over until more sustainable solutions come, and to help them meet their permit requirements. That’s happened.”